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Pet Shop Boys
Please & Actually & Introspective: reissues Luke Turner , March 7th, 2018 09:28

Spectacular, defiant, joyous: the first three albums of pop majesty from Pet Shop Boys, reissued with some excellent extras.

"It's very grandiose," says Neil Tennant of 'Opportunities' in the sleevenotes for the reissue of Pet Shop Boys' Please, continuing, "We always used to like the grandiose, as well as the street. Actually, it's a dialectic. We've always been trying to bring the two things together." The 1986 debut album from Tennant and Chris Lowe is the latest in a series of updated reissues from their label Parlophone that, in this instalment, also includes 1987's Actually and 1988 smash hit Introspective. They were always good at manifestos, were the Pet Shop Boys, from this to that line about "Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat" to a brilliant 1992 Select piece by Tennant in which he defended the importance of hating things. This is why he and Lowe are among the finest chroniclers of English life and the allure of the city that we've ever seen. They understood that the 80s were a time of money, sex and power - and what Neil Tennant has described as "romantic paranoia". This is what shapes these three albums, these superlative songs, an extraordinary debut run that few have surpassed since. They would, no doubt, be far more critically lauded were it not for the subsequent strange and homophobia-tinged cultural aversion the British have to synthesized electric pop music that only now is starting to wane. 

 It's the sheer breadth of their palette that becomes so abundantly clear when listening to Please, Actually and Introspective over and over, in order. From Italo disco to rap to house to Latin hip hop to classical contemporary world-dominating pop Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were extraordinary magpies. The would borrow and steal (the sleevenotes confess that the bassline for 'Suburbia' was lifted from Madonna's 'Into The Groove' and a fair bit was robbed off of New Order) but, via their knack for a perfect melody and Tennant's Geordie-boy-moves-to-London languid vocals, their music is distinctly their own. That rich spread of inspirations and ingredients wasn't just musical, of course. Pet Shop Boys songs include lyrics about the Profumo affair, Che Guevera as a drag queen, literary allusions to Don Juan and Oscar Wilde, mentions of Albania's King Zog, the domino theory at the heart of Vietnam war ideology, knackered 80s Soho at night, privatisation, the HIV crisis and, curiously, a lot of dogs. As Neil Tennant puts it when talking about Actually, "even the jokes are serious jokes". Crucially, these were often songs that came from muttered conversations overheard on the streets or from Tennant and Lowe's friends, for at the heart of Pet Shop Boys' brilliance and charm is the knowledge that the extraordinary can be found in supposedly everyday lives. This is aspirational music, but because it sets you free and sets you dreaming, not in the yachts'n'birds idiom of their 80s contemporaries or the 'drivin' my chain to the club' tedium of now. In the world that Pet Shop Boys reflected and articulated in these three albums, the personal and political are forever intertwined. Perhaps that was inevitable - queer music is inherently political because it has to be to survive, and especially so back when these three albums were written.  

So, as these are reissues, about the releases. Some might (and indeed on the PSB forum many are) complain that these have already been out once, back in 2001. There are unreleased tracks, but very few. Another gripe might be that the original Bobby O versions of the Please tracks aren't here, but no doubt legal issues are to blame there. Aside from that, for those who missed the original reissue series and aren't on the streaming services, the extras are excellent - extended and prototype versions abound. 'Opportunities' b-side 'In The Night' is a classic example of the multi-faceted brilliance of the duo - a song written about the Parisians called les Zazous, who defied the strictures of Nazi occupation by listening to jazz and growing their hair long, it managed to be used as the theme music for BBC fashion programme The Clothes Show while at the same time sounding like a long-lost cold wave classic. On the Actually disc, stripped-down versions of 'I Want To Wake Up' and 'Always On My Mind' make the originals feel far more haunting by reflection. 'The Sound Of The Atom Splitting', on the Introspective disc, takes its name and refrain from Derek Jarman's The Last Of England, Neil Tennant's vocals (a dispute between a liberal and a fascist) mutter away - the whole thing sounds like a minimal acid take on Throbbing Gristle. It is, of course, amazing. The cover of Stephen Sondheim's 'Losing My Mind' (later released as a PSB-produced cover by Liza Minnelli) is effortless and joyous.   

Chris Heath's sleevenotes are a highlight, proof that it's pretty much impossible to make a hash of sitting Tennant and Lowe down in front of a microphone - they are charming, self-deprecating, deadpan funny, constantly sparking off each other. Lowe likes to sardonically interject "because it was the 80s" after references to asymmetric haircuts and saxophone solos, and they disagree as to what Dusty Springfield was wearing when they first met her - Chris says a shell suit, Neil thinks it was black leather. There are wonderful little anecdotes that feel, well, very PSB. Tennant carrying a briefcase to work at Smash Hits, taking a pen out on the number 22 bus home to write the lyrics of 'What Have I Done To Deserve This?'. Booblies, the Yorkshire terrier cuddled by Chris on the Introspective sleeve, went on to attack Gordon The Gopher, a puppet on Saturday morning kids' TV show Going Live. Curiously, this was probably my first encounter with the group. 

What stands out? Well, if you're unfamiliar with these records, get listening to them now. If you're already a fan, no doubt these excellently remastered versions will surprise. For me, it's when that simple, yearning melody of 'Suburbia' starts off riding the sort of tough, industrial-influenced beats Depeche Mode snuck into pop a few years earlier. Where live it often sounds bombastic and triumphant now, the reissue reminds us of its more clattering genesis. On Actually, it's the toughness of anti-privatisation diatribe 'Shopping', with whipcracks for rhythmic punctuation. For their third album, Tennant and Lowe didn't have to push the boat out - they still had the songs coming. 'Left To My Own Devices', for instance, would have been brilliant even on the comparatively restrained Please or Actually. Introspective, however, was different. An album that saw PSB give full reign to their increasing infatuation with club music, it gave rise to Tennant's coining of the idea of an "imperial phase" for a pop group, "where we felt, making it, that we understood the essence of pop music and so we felt we could do what we liked". The results were spectacular, with 'Domino Dancing' managing to hold disco, sax, Spanish guitar in one wonderful song. 

For all the grandiose magnificence of Introspective I personally prefer Pet Shop Boys in their upstart revolutionary phase, the fractured vignettes and rough drum sounds of cheap thrills and finding a sense of oneself and sex in the big city. Yes, as is often said, Soft Cell might have been more seedy but there was something about how Pet Shop Boys smuggled queer kink into the living rooms of millions that makes what they did so wonderfully delicious. Actually in particular feels more intimate somehow, these personal songs of sex and politics that might equally and eloquently be written from the point of view of a prostitute ('Rent') as a city type ('Shopping'). As albums about getting on with life and love under the iniquities of Thatcherism go, Actually can't be bettered. It's a document of its time as much as anything else, a capturing of a moment just as Jarman's tour video projections for the group depict a grimy, knackered capital city that's now vanished. Actually is given its multitude of moods by the shadow of Aids hanging over 'Hit Music', 'It Couldn't Happen Here' and 'Kings Cross'. The last two tracks make it the album with the broadest range - they're reflective and sorrowful, a contrast to the sex as defiance against religious judgement pomp of 'It's A Sin', which remains to this day the most life-changing pop song I've ever heard. 

Pet Shop Boys are many things to many people, a group who can have an academic symposium dedicated to their work, collaborate with choreographers, write soundtracks, perform stadium-sized live spectaculars and still put out records that knock the spots off their peers - the entirely modern-sounding Electric from 2013 sits among their best records. Perhaps in all of this it's sometimes easy to forget that they also simply wrote some absolutely cracking tunes that had the ability to change lives. Revisiting Please, Actually and Introspective, so beautifully illuminated by the supporting material, is like looking at a blueprint for everything that pop music can and should be.